The Hot-Cold Gap: How Planning Leads to Failure

"Why don't these people get it?!"

Thought researchers who were studying a group of non-exercisers who were trying to set up a habitual exercise routine. 

The participants were asked to estimate the amount of time they knew, without a doubt, they would spend in the gym over the next two weeks – about 10 hours/week on average.

I'm sure you have gone through a similar planning process at some point. So you probably won’t be shocked when I tell you that the average time spent in the gym wasn’t even half of that!

In reality, the participants only spent 8 hours in the gym!

But the most surprising finding came from what happened next. Researchers wondered, would people learn from their mistakes? So they invited the group to plan again. 

This time, they thought, people will come up with a more realistic number.

Nope. They planned to spend even more time in the gym!

They didn't learn from the past; they felt the need to make up for it.

In their minds, the previous 2 weeks were an anomaly. Over the next 2 weeks, their “real selves” were going to show up and make it to the gym for 12.5 hours/week this time! [1]


So why did this happen?

Well, when the participants were in the laboratory, they were in a calm, cool and focused state of mind. So, they assumed that all of their future decisions - like going to the gym - we’re going to be in that same state of mind.

It is easy to say that you will be disciplined and full of willpower in the future when you are calm and relaxed right now.

But what about those times when your alarm goes off after 5 hours of sleep? That's a different story.

The difference between these two states of mind is called the “Hot-Cold Empathy Gap.”

As a human, you are naturally incredibly optimistic about your willpower. When you imagine your future self, you probably imagine a superhero. You envision someone with boundless energy, who can deny all temptation and has unlimited time to achieve all your ambitions. 

That is why planning New Year’s resolutions lead to setting impossible standards. When you plan for the future with a cool state of mind, you will assume your future self will have the same mindset. 

Of course, this is rarely the case. 

You get stressed. You get tired. You get emotional. And you get into a “hot” state of mind - where reason and self-discipline stand little chance against your impulses.

When you’re in this state, your willpower is weak, and it’s harder to make the right choice. [2]


Okay, so this explains why the non-exercisers failed with their initial prediction. 

But why did they plan to exercise even more next time?

When the participants returned to their cool state of mind in the laboratory, they reflected on the last two weeks as if they were simply a series of unlucky breaks. [1]

Over the next two weeks, they surely won't be so unlucky...and now they have to make up for their failure over the past week. 

You've probably felt a similar need to make up for the past When you have a cool head; it's hard to understand how you made "stupid mistakes," and therefore vow to make up for them. 

And who better to make up for the shame of the past than the superhero that exists in the future!

However, as we saw from the study, this only leads to more failure, more heartache, and more shame.


When Starbucks was going through its massive expansion, it faced a lot of growing pains. The biggest among them was ensuring that the mass influx of new employees was adequately trained and provided excellent customer service.

For many employees, Starbucks is their first job. They haven’t had to deal with a packed line or an angry customer before. 

Even though they all wanted to do a good job, as soon as the “heat” was turned up, many of them snapped at customers – or snapped at each other. 

To help employees deal with those situations, Starbucks came up with a simple solution – the "if-then" strategy

They added an extra page at the end of every employee handbook with lines like, “If a customer yells at me then I will ______”. 

The employee would then write in advance what their response would be to this and many other tough situations. It allowed employees to plan their response with a cool mindset, so they didn’t need to think as much under pressure. [3]


Change Your Mindset

When coming up with the if-then strategy, Starbucks didn't blame the workers. They assumed the best in their people and wanted to understand why they were struggling.

You probably recognize the value in Starbucks not placing blame, and taking an honest assessment, but how often do you do the same with yourself?

We know how to advise others to help them reach their goals, but we rarely use that wisdom on ourselves. Instead, we blame, we ignore the facts, and we try to make up for it with unrealistic plans. 

Before you try to implement this strategy, you must break out of that mindset. 

To do this, pretend you're advising a friend or a colleague on their goal. What advice would you give them?

Plan for the Hot Head

Your future self is not a superhero. In fact, she is probably a lot like your past self. She makes mistakes, is pressed for time, does not have an endless supply of willpower, and has a hot head. 

When creating plans, assume you will be tired, stressed, and wanting to procrastinate. 

What if-then decision will help you overcome those feelings?

Now you have a rational, mindful and well thought-out decision made ahead of time. So you can bypass the irrational and emotional decision that you would naturally make when under pressure. [4]


If I come home from work and I'm starving, then I will eat a healthy snack of nuts and fruit before making any decisions on dinner.

If I hear my alarm and want to hit the snooze, then I will focus on making it to the coffee pot.

If I get tempted to buy something at the mall, then I will only use the cash I have in my pocket to pay for it.

It sounds simplistic, but it is a remarkably effective strategy. 

When you make the if-then decision beforehand, you don't need to waste mental energy debating yourself about what to do. You know the plan. Now you just need to execute it. 


You are part of an overly-optimistic species. When you have a relaxed mindset, you believe your future self will have endless time, energy, and willpower. 

But when you’re tired, stressed and staring temptation in the face, this willpower is nowhere to be found.

However, by preloading an "if-then" decision, you create a defense mechanism to deal with these situations.  So hope for the best, but plan for the worst, for the sake of both you and your future self!


  1. McGonigal, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery.
  2. Baumeister, Roy F., and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
  3. Vohs, Kathleen D., Roy F. Baumeister, Brandon J. Schmeichel, Jean M. Twenge, Noelle M. Nelson, and Dianne M. Tice. "Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-control: A Limited-resource Account of Decision Making, Self-regulation, and Active Initiative." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94.5 (2008): 883-98
  4. Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.